It's a minefield: tread lightly

We all like to make our mark when we take up a new position. But how can you absorb a corporate culture without losing your...

We all like to make our mark when we take up a new position. But how can you absorb a corporate culture without losing your differentiating skills? Julia Vowler reports

Edited by Mark Lewis

Very few organisations appoint a new IT manager or director with the brief "More of the same, please". Nearly all new-arrivals know that they are intended to be harbingers of change. And, because most people detest change, the newcomer will find that the path to glory actually resembles something of a minefield.

So what might the mines be, and how should the new manager avoid them?

The most explosive material is likely to be the staff they inherit. Staff can make or break a manager, and gaining their confidence is essential. Without co-operation a new manager will have to suffer obduracy and sniping.

Clear goals are also essential - as is explaining them to those who will be required to achieve them. Spelling out the reason for those goals is also vital - no one willingly marches in the dark.

Sometimes these goals are urgent and not open to debate. Mike Parker, former IT manager at Royal Sun Alliance's Life Assurance IT department, faced such goals when he arrived in the aftermath of the insurance giants' merger. Shareholders now wanted to see the cost reductions they were promised - and IT was expected to contribute.

On top of the M&A environment, Parker also had year 2000 looming. He needed to act fast and effectively. To do so he needed his staff heading the way. "I can't overemphasise the human factor," he stresses.

Because Parker had arrived in the new (old Royal) headquarters in Liverpool from the old Sun Alliance base in Horsham, his first challenge was to overcome two sources of possible staff hostility and suspicion. The old Royal staff could have seen him as "the enemy", arriving to occupy their conquered territory, and his old Sun Alliance staff might have seen him as "the traitor" who went over to the other side.

Parker was determined to dissolve the inherited "us and them" factor and forge a new team. To do so meant finding out who his team were - personally.

"For the first three months I spent a lot of time speaking to staff and managers," he says. He would lunch with groups of eight at a time until he had worked his way through all 300. "That's when you get the grass-roots feedback," he says.

Parker found that the most prevalent emotions were insecurity, uncertainty and defensiveness. Staff needed to know where they were going to be in the post-merger era.

Some, inevitably, were going to be out of a job. This was because merging the two Life operations from Sun Alliance and the Royal meant halving the number of IT systems inherited - which would mean a staff fall-out as well. The policy was to retrain and reassign as many people as possible, as amicably as possible, and to try to find a soft landing for the remainder.

But before the people issue could be addressed, the systems had to be sorted out. As long-established insurance companies there was usually more than one of everything, recalls Parker.

Every pair of contending systems had its supporters. Parker cut through the potential in-fighting by going right back to basics. He went out to the business owners of the systems, and got them to restate their business requirements. "Both camps evaluated both systems," says Parker. "We tried to take out the bias [of selection] and bent over backwards to achieve fairness."

What this achieved was not only the best system for what the newly merged company needed to do, but also a sense of objective fair play. The selection process was made visible, and openly justifiable, so that even those staff on the "losing" system side would appreciate how and why the other system had "won".

This contrasted, Parker points out, with the first decision he had made, on which of two laptops to go with. He knew that to reduce fear and doubt, swift decisions were necessary. But not too swift.

Although he feels he made what was the right decision, because it was taken so quickly, staff did not buy into it - they felt it was rushed and insufficiently considered. "It took 12 months to win them over - after a lot of trench warfare!" says Parker.

Hence the decision to display the selection process more openly.

Parker also used an even more powerful tool - remuneration. Because the Royal had been sited in Liverpool, and Sun Alliance in the South East, pay scales were not even. Salary disparity is a sure source of dissension and discontent.

Parker levelled the playing field by changing the entire reward system. The outcome was no benefit for the Sun Alliance staff, and a lot to the Royal, but the system was new to both, with the emphasis now on linking reward to effort and deliverables.

"It was tremendously positively motivating," Parker says.

Golden rules of successful management

  • You must understand the imperatives - you have to know what you have to deliver, and by when

  • You must understand what you have inherited. In an M&A you may get brief access to the official records, prior to the merger, but you never get access to the underlying culture

  • Get to know the people you inherit on a personal basis

  • Make changes you need to make quickly - but not too quickly

  • Ensure your decisions are made objectively, and the process is well displayed and understood

  • Read more on IT risk management